NASA has postponed the launch of its flagship James Webb Space Telescope to early 2021 owing to a range of factors influencing its schedule and performance, including the technical challenges by Northrop Grumman on the spacecraft’s sunshield and propulsion system remaining before launch.
NASA had previously estimated an earlier launch date, but awaited findings from the IRB before making a final determination and considered data from Webb’s Standing Review Board. The telescope’s new total lifecycle cost, to support the revised launch date, is estimated at $9.66 billion; its new development cost estimate is $8.8 billion, NASA's statement read.
From detecting the light of the first stars and galaxies in the distant universe, to probing the atmospheres of exoplanets for possible signs of habitability, Webb’s world-class science not only will shed light on the many mysteries of the universe, it also will complement and further enhance the discoveries of other astrophysics projects.
The first telescope of its kind, and an unprecedented feat of engineering, Webb is at the very leading edge of technological innovation and development. At its conception, challenges were anticipated for such a unique observatory of its size and magnitude. Webb was designed with highly sophisticated instruments to accomplish the ambitious scientific goals outlined in the National Academy of Sciences 2000 Decadal Survey – to answer the most fundamental questions about our cosmic origins.
Webb will be folded, origami-style, for launch inside Arianespace’s Ariane 5 launch vehicle fairing – about 16 feet (5 meters) wide. After its launch, the observatory will complete an intricate and technically-challenging series of deployments – one of the most critical parts of Webb’s journey to its final orbit, about one million miles from Earth. When completely unfurled, Webb’s primary mirror will span more than 21 feet (6.5 meters) and its sunshield will be about the size of a tennis court.
Because of its size and complexity, the process of integrating and testing parts is more complicated than that of an average science mission. Once the spacecraft element has completed its battery of testing, it will be integrated with the telescope and science instrument element, which passed its tests last year. The fully-assembled observatory then will undergo a series of challenging environmental tests and a final deployment test before it is shipped to the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, the US space agency noted in its statement.